A U.S. Air Force colonel presiding over last Monday’s hearing on the pros and cons of hosting F-35 fighter jets in Vermont asked the audience to hold its applause until the end of the evening.
The crowd did not obey orders.
In the South Burlington High School auditorium, people spilling out into the hallways hooted and hollered as a parade of citizens spoke about an Air Force proposal to base as many as two dozen of the new-generation warplanes at Burlington International Airport.
“If we were a sleepy farm community and the Air Force was trying to barge their way in and put an airbase with jets, that would be a whole different subject,” said Tom Brassard, a local business owner who supports stationing planes at the Vermont Air National Guard base. “But I’ve been here all my life, and the jets have been part of our landscape. The sound has been part of our landscape.”
Brassard warned that if Vermont rejects the F-35s, the Guard base — and the hundreds of jobs it supports — might disappear altogether.
Echoing that warning, Kelly Devine of the Burlington Business Association cautioned that the $53 million payroll linked to the F-16s currently based at the airport would likely disappear if the F-35s do not replace them. In other words, the military could shut the base down — as it did with the Plattsburgh Air Force base years ago.
F-35 opponents characterized such testimony as “scare tactics.” South Burlington resident Janice Schwartz said the F-16s currently based at the airfield are disruptive to nearby homes and schools, and that F-35s would be even louder.
“Please use common sense, and do not fly your jets over densely populated residential areas,” Schwartz urged Air Force hearing officers. “Please choose another location that would not affect 1000 residents and probably more.”
Concerns about the impact of F-35 noise have crystallized in response to a recent U.S. Air Force assessment of the environmental impact of basing advanced supersonic aircraft in a residential area already beleaguered by high decibel levels. The study finds that the F-35s would expose up to 1366 additional Burlington-area households to noise louder than what the Federal Aviation Administration deems acceptable.
Homes along some streets in South Burlington would become “uninhabitable” due to the screams and booms the F-35s will produce, predicts Juliet Buck, who lives near the airport and is among the leaders of a coalition opposed to the local basing option. “Winooski is toast” if the F-35 beds down here, Buck adds. “Large swathes of Williston are toast.”
Conceivably, the 2863 people living in the potentially affected households could all be displaced and their homes demolished if the Air Force decides to base 24 of the new warplanes at the Vermont Air Guard Station. St. Michael’s College and South Burlington’s Chamberlin School would also experience noise at levels that could make both institutions potentially eligible to be bought out and torn down.
But a representative of St. Michael’s president John Neuhauser attended Monday’s meeting to say the college welcomes the prospect of F-35s soaring over the Colchester campus. He said, while the noise from the existing F-16s does require some accommodation, it is not more than “a minor inconvenience.”
The South Burlington school board is not as tolerant. In a May 14 letter to Air Force officials, school board member Martin LaLonde said on behalf of the board that the draft environmental study is “deficient in a number of respects in its evaluation of these impacts.” He called the report’s consideration of noise effects on teachers and students at Chamberlin and other South Burlington schools “too narrow and too cursory.”
It’s already too loud in some parts of South Burlington. Based on a threshold of average daily exposure to 65 decibels or higher, the FAA has so far funded the destruction of more than 100 homes near the airport, with another 100 eligible for sale and demolition. The impact of the lost and condemned homes has unsettled many of the airport neighborhood’s remaining residents.
As it is, “A whole community is in the process of being destroyed,” says South Burlington City Council chair Rosanne Greco. “I don’t see how [the coming of the F-35] would make it any better.”
Greco, elected in March to lead the council, is among the political figures who could help persuade the U.S. Air Force to base the F-35s somewhere other than South Burlington. After 30 years of active Air Force duty, Greco retired in 2003 with the rank of colonel. “I’m incredibly supportive of the Air Guard mission, its individuals and family members,” Greco says. “I would defend them to the death — and I mean that literally.”
She adds, however, that her first obligation now is to her constituents in South Burlington. And she notes that the existing fleet of F-16 fighter jets produces noise that is “already causing much pain and discomfort to many residents.” Usually, Greco continues, “military air bases are placed very far away from population centers and for good reasons.”
Vermont’s three-member congressional delegation sounds slightly less enthusiastic about the potential arrival of the F-35s than it did almost two years ago. In a joint statement in July 2010, U.S. Sens. Patrick Leahy and Bernie Sanders and Rep. Peter Welch hailed the Air Force’s designation of the Burlington Air Guard Station as one of two “preferred” sites for basing the F-35s. Hill Air Force Base in Utah is the other favored location.
But Leahy and Sanders offered only lukewarm and hedged endorsements last week in response to queries from Seven Days about whether they still view South Burlington as a suitable site for the new warplanes. If either of Vermont’s senators were to swing to a stance of outright opposition, the Air Force would likely drop the idea.
“Sen. Leahy supported the initial choice of Burlington and respects the Air Force’s deliberative process now under way,” spokesman David Carle says in an email message. “He supports all Vermonters having the opportunity to be heard, and he will respect a final decision reached through this process.”
Sanders, press secretary, Michael Briggs comments: “Bernie thinks it is a sign of the national respect and admiration for the Vermont National Guard that it was selected by the Air Force in a very competitive process. There also is evidence that this program is going to create jobs in our area. Clearly, for a variety of reasons, there are people who have concerns about this project and it is important that their views be considered by the Air Force before a final decision is made.”
Welch was the most enthusiastic of Vermont’s three federal lawmakers. “Basing these planes with the Vermont Air National Guard would be good for the long-term future of the Vermont Guard as well as Vermont’s economy,” Welch’s spokesman Scott Coriell says. “Peter believes that interested members of the community have a right to be heard on the merits and scope of this project and that the Air Force should take their views into consideration before a final decision is made.”
Sanders’ suggestion that the plane would produce more jobs holds true only under the second of two basing scenarios detailed in the Air Force’s draft environmental impact statement. Replacing the F-16s with 18 F-35s would simply preserve the 1130 jobs associated with the Vermont Guard’s air operations, according to the report. Stationing two dozen F-35s in South Burlington — the second scenario — would generate an additional 266 jobs for local residents, the report says.
Even if airbase employment does increase by the projected 24 percent, “I don’t think it justifies displacing thousands of people from their homes,” says Buck, one of the most outspoken members of the remobilized local Stop the F-35 Coalition, which last year collected 1000 signatures from South Burlington residents opposed to the planes — mainly because of the anticipated impact on health and property values. The coalition recently received a $1000 grant from a New England grassroots environmentalist fund.
Burlington Mayor Miro Weinberger says he supports basing the F-35s at Burlington’s airport, saying in an emailed statement that for Burlington, “The environmental impacts [of the F-16s] have been limited.” Gov. Peter Shumlin and the Vermont legislature have also expressed support, mainly on the grounds that the future of the Vermont Air National Guard could be riding on the wing tips of the F-35.
Buck and other opponents argue, however, that putting the new plane in Utah or elsewhere would not necessarily result in the loss of the 1130 jobs linked to the F-16. “New versions of the F-16 are in production,” Buck notes. “There’s nothing to prevent the Air Force from purchasing more and using them here. Not getting the F-35 doesn’t mean the base disappears.”
Buck acknowledges, though, that she also opposes keeping the F-16 in South Burlington. “It’s too loud for a residential area,” she says.
Deployment of the F-35 at any base in the United States is still at least three years in the future. The plane has been beset by numerous production delays and cost overruns. For example, the Air Force’s draft evaluation of possible bed-down sites was released 18 months later than anticipated.
The cost of building the full fleet of more than 2000 of the supersonic fighters has risen to about $400 billion. Operation and maintenance of the F-35 over the next 30 years will consume an additional $1 trillion, according to Pentagon estimates.